Thursday, November 6, 2014

No one writes like that nowadays. Nowadays one writes much worse. - Thomas Mann, Günter Grass, and Samuel Beckett read Theodor Fontane

Three examples of Fontane’s influence or perhaps just presence, one predictable, another unusual, and the third hard to believe.

Thomas Mann must have grown up almost immersed in Fontane’s fiction.  Fontane is a rare case – he worked as a journalist, but did not turn to fiction until late, not publishing his first novel until he was almost sixty, and writing a string of masterpieces in his seventies.  Mann, who was a wonder kid whose publications began when he was, I believe, 18, would have been a teen in northern Germany when all of these radical new northern German novels were appearing.

Mann was always appreciative of Fontane.  “If I may be permitted the personal confession: no writer of past or present stirs in me that kind of sympathy and gratitude, that immediate, instinctive delight, that reflex gaiety, warmth, and satisfaction, which I feel reading any of his verse, any line of his letters, any scrap of dialogue.”

I found that in Phillip Lopate’s Irretrievable Afterword, p. 260; it is from the 1910 essay “The Old Fontane.”  Mann is a writer of many modes, most of them not especially evocative of Fontane, but it is hard to imagine Buddenbrooks (1901) without Fontane’s example.  The first part of the first scene is pure Fontane.  Little Tony Buddenbrooks is on her grandfather’s lap reciting her newly-memorized catechism; the grandfather gently mocks not her but the innovations recently introduced into it.  The grandfather is brought to life by this one little gesture based on a social change that a modern reader may not even be able to detect any more.

I have not read Günter Grass’s 1995 novel Too Far Afield.  I am not sure I could read it well.  It is about history and German unification, but it is also about Theodor Fontane, and not only about him but to some large degree composed of Fontane quotations.  Like a novelistic collage.  Good luck finding an English-language reviewer who was able to detect any of this.  The title, Ein weites Feld, is from a phrase Old Briest says repeatedly – in fact they are the last words of Effi Briest – a hugely famous quotation that not only means nothing to English-language readers but is not even recognizable to someone who has read Fontane in translation, since the two translations I know do not translate Briest’s words as “too far afield.”  Impossible.

The unlikely Fontane fan is Samuel Beckett.  I will quote extensively from Beckett’s Polish translator and collaborator, Antoni Libera:

Beckett arrived with his typical punctuality, at twelve on the dot, not a second later.  To a meeting that wasn't connected with any creative plans or projects he usually came "empty-handed", as he liked to put it.  This time he was holding a small book, which turned out to be an old, very well-thumbed copy of Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane.

Beckett's close friends and those who are experts on his work will know that it was one of his favourite novels, which he often went back to and which he also referred to in his writing.  "Let us hasten home", says Mr Rooney to his old wife in the radio-play All That Fall, "and sit before the fire. We shall draw the blinds. You will read to me. I think Effi is going to commit adultery with the Major."  And in Krapp's Last Tape, as he's making his recording, old Krapp muses: "Effi... Could have been happy with her, up there on the Baltic, and the pines, and the dunes" - because the action of the novel takes place near Stettin - a city which now, as Szczecin, belongs to Poland.

All of that is accurate, except for some reason in Krapp’s Last Tape the name is spelled “Effie”: “Scalded the eyes out of me reading Effie again, a page a day, with tears again”  (p. 25 of the Grove Weidenfeld edition).  Back to Libera and Beckett:

I plucked up the courage to ask the vital question:

"Why do you like that novel so much?"

There was a long pause before I got an answer.

"I used to dream of writing something like it.  And I still have a bit of that dream left.  But I never did.  I never did write it..."  He broke off.

"You never did write it?" I brazenly tried to drag the words out of him.

Another wan smile, and then, unfolding his hands, he said:

"For... I was born too late.  No one writes like that nowadays.  Nowadays one writes much worse."  He glanced at me and added jokingly:  "But don't worry.  The world is changing.  Perhaps you'll manage it."

Beckett seems to have actually lived in a Beckett play.  A page a day would be a strange way to read Effi Briest.  Still, what good company for reading Fontane.


  1. Those Mann and, in particular, Beckett tidbits are priceless. Thanks for digging them up and sharing them. Having read and enjoyed Effi Briest a few years ago, I could use some advice: should I go with Irretrievable by Fontane next or try something else by him first?

  2. Hey, maybe I should say something about the actual novel I read. Later today I will.

    You should read Schach von Wuthenow next. It is in the German Library Short Novels and Other Writings as "The Man of Honor" and in a different translation as The Hussar. Prussian Doom, or as close as Fontane got. I said a couple of posts back that Fontane did not have the "satirical savagery" of Eça de Queirós. I meant that relatively.

    I have not read two major Fontane works - at least two: Irrungen, Wirrungen and his last novel Der Stechlin, which I understand features another famous, beloved character. Maybe next November I'll try one of those.

    1. Fontane's Short Novels & Etc. arrived in the library for me today. Thanks for the tip.

  3. The Beckett connection is hilarious!

  4. The Beckett anecdote is itself a thing of beauty.

  5. The Beckett anecdote, as you and others note, is great. I now feel I must read Effi Briest, or even Effie. (From one who writes much worse - just to be fashionable.)

  6. I am OK with Beckett convincing someone to read Effi Briest, however distant the novel is from Beckett's work.

  7. He really is a writer's writer, isn't he? I still see him mentioned often by authors.

  8. Writer's writer - yes, I believe so, even more so outside of Germany.

  9. It's like being a writer now and wishing we could write like Yeats (not as good, just "like")--but it can't be done.

  10. No, and of course we don't want to write exacly like Yeats, we want our own voices, but would a little Yeats mixed in there hurt? But no.

    You must know Amy Clampitt's poems. I just read a couple of her books. A wonderful example of a poet who suggests many others but still sounds like no one but herself.

  11. This is a very interesting insight. At some place Somerset Maugham wrote about how some young man became an object of derision to others because he stated his enjoyment of Stevenson's essays: those essays being written in an antiquated style and all; I mean, Stevenson even quotes Horace in Latin, Illi robur et aes triplex and all. I guess the bloggers at Anecdotal Evidence and Laudator Temporis Acti would be put on the same ridiculing boat as Stevenson and Anatole France after the surrealists savaged him.

    New wine requires new wineskins, the past is a bucket of ashes, Buddha is a dried turd, etc. Rejecting the past and its literary diction[s] is a recurring ritual, and the discarded authors become writer's writers. The cheeky young guns of one generation become the dessicated corpses of future generations in turn (cough Victor Hugo, cough) or are swallowed up by the mainstream, as happened with the antipoets.

  12. I see that the top post at Laudator Temporis Acti right now contains actual Greek text, as if he is rubbing it in. And Kurp is writing about Johnson and Boswell, of course. Then there are the antiques I read.

    You are describing one of the great pleasures of the study of literary history, seeing how the punks spit on the monuments and then become monuments themselves.

    As an aside, Stevenson's essays are due for a rediscovery, I declare hopefully.